Now that Israel is in the land with the sons who will form the tribes of Israel, how will they represent the heavenly king in the presence of people who do not submit to him? The nations do not submit to God’s laws. Driven by their own passions, they take whatever they want by force.
We’ve seen this picture ever since Nimrod the warrior of Genesis 10. It’s devastating:
Genesis 34:1–2 (ESV)
1 Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the women of the land. 2 And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land, saw her, he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her.
Are you tempted to stop reading, to skip to something more pleasant? You really need this text if you think, “God’s running the world, so he’ll never let anything bad happen to me.” That belief will fail you. Neither can you blame Dinah, as if she must have been doing something wrong or it wouldn’t have happened to her. Verse 1 explicitly sets up the story by saying she was behaving well in her culture. Don’t blame the victim.
Rape is not primarily about sex; it’s about power and violence. It’s abuse of power—forcing oneself on another. The verbs of verse 2 build a crescendo of horror: he saw, he seized, he lay with, he violated her. The last verb ā·nā(h) means to rape, to afflict, to oppress.
The rapist is the Canaanite ruler, prince of the land. In a world where people have taken power that only God can handle, it’s what rulers often do. We’ve already seen that the struggle between the sexes is one of the direct consequences of the original power-grab (Genesis 3). It’s especially devastating when people with power force themselves on others.
In Exodus 1:11-12, the same Hebrew verb — ā·nā(h) — describes what Pharaoh commands his officials to do to the Israelites. Godless rulers force themselves on people. Dictators force themselves on people. Communism does the same: ask anyone who’s suffering the crackdown in China.
Rulers rape people of other nations too. It’s called war. Genesis 10:8-12 already warned us about Nimrod the warrior whose attitudes founded Assyria and Babylon, the empires that forced themselves on the nations. In New Testament times, Rome forced nations under its power. Last century, Stalin slaughtered millions of his own people to keep his power. Then Hitler forced himself on Europe, including the Jewish people. Today it’s ISIS trying to force its power on others.
Which country is most guilty of forcing itself on others since World War II? Which one has attacked more countries than any other in the last 70 years? Do you know? Unfortunately, my own country (Australia) is complicit in many of those wars including Vietnam and Iraq.
There is no future in toppling a dictator like Saddam Hussain and leaving a power vacuum. The United States of America is not the answer to world peace, though it does contribute more than any nation to world war. That would be true by any measure—count of wars, military spending, …
That’s the point. In a world that resists God’s government, human government is necessary (as we’ve seen). Anarchic violence is unsustainable. But the Biblical narrative repeatedly paints human government as oppressive. People can’t handle the power that ought to be in God’s hands. The Bible teaches us to be suspicious of those in power, for rulers so often rape their people.
That’s the point of Genesis 34. Jacob bought property to settle down and establish the representative kingdom of God among the nations (33:19), but Shechem was the Canaanite prince of the area. How can the people of God live as his nation among rulers like this? How can they defend themselves when rulers rape them? How should they respond? What action should they take to defend their honour and survive?
Genesis 34 wrestles with these questions. It provides no answers. There are no simplistic answers. The ultimate answer involves people handing their power back to God: every knee bowing, every tongue acknowledging him as Lord. In the meantime, how do we survive? How do we respond to being abused? Now, that’s the question.
What others are saying
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 233 – 234:
This narrative exemplifies, once again, a major theme of the patriarchal stories: the sexual depravity of the inhabitants of the land. This has been illustrated by the accounts of Lot and the men of Sodom and by the repeated threats to the matriarchs Sarah and Rebekah. The “Helen of Troy” motif, discussed in the Comment to 12:11, is here vividly represented. …
took … lay … force Three Hebrew verbs of increasing severity underscore the brutality of Shechem’s assault on Dinah.
As you would expect in a world where males have dominated exegesis, there have been attempts to blame the victim, e.g. Jerusalem Talmud y. Sanh. 2:6, VII.3.Z:
“As it is written, ‘And Dinah went out’ (Gen. 34:1) [like a whore, thus reflecting on her mother]”
Read Genesis 34:1-2.